Les Invisibles

The Object of Desire

Art is what makes life
more interesting than art.

Robert Filliou


All of these texts were written between 1986 and 1998, and they deal with works from the second half of the twentieth century, works that are contemporaneous with me and to which I have, in each case, “affective debts,” as Jean-François Lyotard would put it. This is because upon discovering them I found myself under an obligation not so much to review them as to write about them or, better yet I hope, to write with them. Why do I feel it necessary, in this foreword, to begin a description of a method, or, better put, a kind of behavior for approaching these works when the texts I wrote are themselves present to testify and stand in evidence? Doubtless it is because my way of approaching the works wasn’t part of a project, and only after the fact did it come to seem to me that it had its own secret form of coherence. Also doubtless it is because a posteriori it took on the shape of a position I had taken, a stance of refusing to express an aesthetic judgment, a “judgment of taste,” in the inevitably Kantian meaning of the phrase. For when it comes to works that are contemporaneous with us, our choices of certain of them over others almost inevitably involves us in the affirmation of some taste or other. When it comes to works from the past, questions of erudition and of history are also involved; also, time itself brings with it a process of settling and of selection, with the end result that those works that a whole society holds on to across the centuries constitute a set of givens in the matter of good taste which aren’t at all fundamentally disturbed by quarrels over a preference for Bernini over Borromini or even Malevich over Mondrian. On the other hand, because we are implicated by a choice in this direction or that made in “real time” in the present moment, faced with contemporary works, we find ourselves in the position of a viewer of the work, led to announce a certain number of propositions and interpretations that could serve to sketch out a personal geography of taste.  It is not that I am here trying to escape from my responsibility to choose, but it has never been my desire that the choice I make should define the personalized content of an aesthetic judgment. Indeed, I find in the work I have done that is assembled here neither this universalized position for making an utterance–the position of the subject as spectator–nor the stance of disinterestedness–the contemplative stance, freed from any sensual appetite or from reason–that together constitute the grounds for an aesthetic judgment. To the contrary, I admit to a partisan and interested approach here, one in which desire and affect are involved, far removed from any contemplative attitude, and absent any sense that I am able to identify myself with the spectator’s point of view.  Here, then, I am returning once more to a debate that began in the nineteenth century, and with good reason, a debate that opposed the point of view of the spectator to that of the artist’s practice in the approach to a given work. One is a neutral kind of reception, impassive and learned; the other is a partial and active experience. Nietzsche summarized this debate–not without taking a position in it–in a few sentences from the third essay in On the Genealogy of Morals: “‘That is beautiful,’ said Kant, ‘which gives us pleasure without interest.’ Without interest! Compare with this definition one framed by a genuine ‘spectator’ and artist–Stendhal, who once called the beautiful une promesse de bonheur.  At any rate he rejected and repudiated the one point about the aesthetic condition which Kant had stressed: le désintéressement. Who is right, Kant or Stendhal? If our aestheticians never weary of asserting in Kant’s favor that, under the spell of beauty, one can even view undraped female statues ‘without interest,’ one may laugh a little at their expense: the experiences of artists on this ticklish point are more ‘interesting,’ and Pygmalion was in any event not necessarily an ‘unaesthetic man.’ Let us think the more highly of the innocence of our aestheticians which is reflected in such arguments; let us, for example, credit it to the honor of Kant that he should expatiate on the peculiar properties of the sense of touch with the naïveté of a country parson.”[i] It seems a nearly prepubescent and experientially deprived kind of innocence that Nietzsche describes when imagining the spectator who could utter an aesthetic judgment. Whereas to affirm an interested desire in art, on the other hand, is to commit oneself to a human bond, one that continues to confer on art a necessity to exist. Certainly it is true that in a world in which cultures and histories blend together in a state of entropy and dispersion, in which the notion of God and then the notion of Man that accompanied it have passed away, art doubtless no longer has religious, historical, and political functions, and seems unable to find any basis for itself except in itself, in a formal investigation that is without content, as Giorgio Agamben has written.[ii] Still, whatever it is that has died, been lost, or abandoned, whatever has withdrawn, however relative meaning–or meanings–may have become, one thing remains that tautens my life with necessity, something that enables the persistence in each of us, in a way that is both singular and specific, of a tragic dimension. It is the simple fact that my life, our life, moves towards death, a fact that leaves no place for disinterestedness in the face of any form of beauty whatsoever. I live in time, a time that only moves forward, that is always being lost, always running away. Looking at things in this way, the demand made of art that it be a promesse de bonheur (a promise of happiness), that it energize life and forms of inquiry, remains intact and absolute. What I also expect from art is that it share my sense that this passing time deserves to pass in the way it does and that I am, even partially, even in a negligible way, to some extent sovereign over its way of passing. So to me it seems quite insufficient to imagine that art should provide the occasion for constructing a judgment regarding taste, however universal it may be. But would refusing to occupy the point of view of a spectator mean taking up the position of an actor, or in this particular case, an artist? Nietzsche called attention specifically to the point of view of the artist’s practice, a quite significant focus that the art of the 1960s and 1970s also pointed to in a major way. Wasn’t one of Minimalism’s major propositions in effect to offer to our vision “objects,” volumes of space that cannot be contemplated, since what they offer to our gaze is no more meaningful than a mountain, as Carl André would say? Now the mountain can, of course, be climbed, crossed, explored, and contemplated, but in the manner of a given part of being that we make our own across the time span of an experience, and not as an art object whose beauty we are judging. It seems to me that the artists of Minimalism or of Land Art of or Earth Works, but also those of in situ [site-specific] works and Arte Povera, all succeeded in their different ways not only in removing art from aesthetic judgment, jettisoning any “aura”–even a formal one–that attached to the object, but also in forcing us to approach the object by means of a sensory practice that the artist and the “spectator” come to share. This is true of the works of Land Art and of Earth Works to such an extent that they cannot be seen in a museum or a gallery. They are dispersed and they blend into nature the way that a landscape fits into the world; they become a given part of being that we bump into in the course of our peregrinations. It may be in some way overweening to conceive of art as some ground and a horizon on the same scale as nature, but why should anyone complain since it is also a question of posing art as the only “nature,” the only universe that a human being can make good use of on the level of his or her consciousness of the world. And if such an ambition should fail, it would at least have matched the level of the risk the artist ran of seeing his or her work return to nature, original and undifferentiated, with no museum coming along to protect it or to guarantee its perpetuity or its celebration.

Still, what does it mean concretely to approach a work from the point of view of the practice of the artist? Here is not the place to take up that question, but I hope that the studies that follow take it up and respond to it a bit. Let me just add that a work affects me because I see it in movement; it is a living work; it dances–I don’t have any other image I can use–and I want to dance with it. I want it to catch me up in its flux and to throw me off balance, bringing my senses and my reason to an intoxicated state. But for that to happen, first you have to move into the zone of the dance and try to follow it, then you have to accompany it, then make yourself one with its movement so that perhaps that “bonheur promis,” that promised happiness, may come in to being. It’s an empirical process, a hesitant experiment, one that sometimes won’t work out, full of uncertainty and little authorized by any body of knowledge. Yet if a match is made, if I catch the rhythm, the very movement of the work itself takes me physically beyond it, or, more exactly, leads me to prolong it with my own movement, which for me is writing. Without a doubt that is what it means to approach the work from the point of view of the artist’s practice. It’s not about repeating the same gesture, or about reconstituting the temporal process of matter taking on form, or it’s not only that. Above all, it means merging together with a movement that transmits its energy and its fervor to us so that we, in our turn, find ourselves caught in the movement of a doing, a making, a practice, whatever it may be. See how far away we have moved from the question of an aesthetic judgment–which is not to say that there will not be works of art that we would judge to be “beautiful,” that we would want to have in our daily lives, in front of which we would find ourselves to be spectators and happy to be so. And it is equally the case that I am certain I have no desire to live with certain of the works that have nonetheless led me to write about and with them here. We are simply not dealing with the same kind of connection to the work of art, and it seems to me the only work that really counts is the one that prompts in us some kind of practical activity, because what happens there is the transmission of an impulse that we in turn experience, transform, and attempt to pass on. This is why, as I conclude the “methodological” component of this preface, I am now coming to the question of writing per se and to the recourse I often have to narrative. For how is it possible to express the discovery of a work, the desire that brought me to it, the dance I attempt to perform with it, that I perhaps succeed in performing? How do I give expression to these moments when they are all so phenomenal, tied up with something happening with the senses and with a meaning that unfolds as a story with its own rhythm, its different velocities, all of which I have to make the reader experience in turn? Only a narrative–which is a form of writing that can piece together the thickness of an experience and the unfolding of a lived duration–has the possibility of recreating the history of this encounter, even if it means containing and enfolding various stopping places, various analytical and theoretical stances, moments of “discourse” that are only worth anything when they are caught in the extreme temporal contextualization of the story. Thus sense perceptions and intellectual perceptions of the work can intersect in the movement of the narration.  Yet I must add that narrative is not only a mode for recreating phenomenal experience; it is also, and above all, a singular mode for elucidating and envisioning the world, a mode that opens onto propositions and interpretations that have a simple connection to ways of thinking and writing about time that belong to the novel. So many ways of approaching works that I use throughout these studies owe their existence and the light they are able to cast to a narrative mode. This is why I have in the end preferred to call these texts critical stories.[iii]

Off the Subject

We see bodies in motion. What is their motion and what are the bodies? […] In created things, colors or tones of light are not dependent on an aesthetic phenomenon, but on the very generic origins of the material, on the collection of elements that constitutes a lump of earth or a form of energy […] each form or else all the generic materials are the energy that colors its own motion […].


In Exodus, God manifests himself to Moses as a flame of fire in a bush, then as a voice enjoining him to set out to Egypt to deliver the sons of Israel. Moses hides his face as he listens even though the only thing there is to see is this flame of fire. Then he responds that he feels incapable of repeating the words of God to the children of Israel. So God designates Aaron to be his spokesman: “He shall speak for you to the people; and he shall be a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God…”[iv] As God, but obviously not as Yahweh is God, we might say. Now this system of relays expresses quite clearly the very nature of God, an immaterial energy that manifests itself as light and as sound waves in the air that only Moses can hear, understand, and codify, except that he cannot repeat them on his own, but requires Aaron to give a body and a voice to what then become words for the people. I would see in this three-way composition, moving from the most formless energy to a well-formed corporeality, a veritable “prophecy” of twentieth-century technology. Yahweh is electricity, energy in the form of light: neutral, universal, and planetary. Moses is the receiver and the interface, the one who captures, channels, and encodes. Aaron is the radio speaker, the terminal, the television or the computer screen that prints, or allows for the appearance of this electrical energy that has already been organized into waves and signs, making it accessible. So Aaron diffuses texts, images, and sounds–ones, it bears insisting, that we absorb these days in the form of luminous and sonorous radiation. If this biblical fable is one that we have been able to make real by way of the technologies that surround us in our daily lives, nonetheless this passage from Exodus gives expression to the enigma involved in transforming universal and invisible energy into something accidental, a body, a form. And despite our present remarkable mastery of this transmutation (its ubiquity, speed, permanent availability), we continue to be affected by it, in a minor key, when we speak of the miracles or the marvels of technology.

To move to a legend from Christianity now, Veronica is a pious woman who is said to have wiped Christ’s face on the road to Calvary. The imprint of his face is said to have remained on the cloth, explaining the existence of the relic known as “The Veronica” (perhaps a deformation of vera icôn), conserved at Saint Peter’s in Rome, and giving rise to the Cult of the Holy Face. If I make reference to this other transmutation, of the face of the living Jesus into an image rendered eternal on the veil, it is because it seems to me to be another technological prophecy, of photography this time, except that we have since moved from the mystery of a tactile imprint to that of an optical imprint.[v] We remain here exclusively within the field of the visual, yet there is still a mysterious change in nature, this time as a body becomes its image. Even though we are these days habitual users of these miracles, we are also the heirs of a history of thought and of religious painting that never cease to question and to ward against elevations, assumptions, resurrections, which are all motifs that express with infinite nuance all the stages of Incarnation and its opposite by means of three fundamental invariants: bodies, images, and light.

Now if I have chosen to organize these texts not around the question of medium–painting, sculpture, photography, digital forms–nor simply chronologically, but rather into two parts called, respectively, BODIES-images and IMAGES-bodies, it is not because I want to avail myself of this religious imaginary, but rather of the obsession it calls our attention to and that is still a constitutive part of our contemporary, atheistic thinking. I want to bring into play the very difficulty, both empirical and theoretical, that we encounter in trying to think about bodies and images together in the field of perception, and above all in trying to think about the movement from one to the other when a third term clearly envelops the pair of them, connects them, traverses them, constitutes them, carries them along, that third term being what we name energy or light. Moreover, the works taken up here, whatever their specific richness, seem to me to be haunted by this very question, one they manifest in all of its complexity and actuality. Beyond their material form, which is particularly imposing in sculpture or in installations, what is being forcefully and insistently called upon here is the body of the perceiving subject, whether it be that of the spectator (cf. Carl André, Giovanni Anselmo, Gerhard Richter, Tony Smith, Robert Smithson) or that of the artist (cf. Nathalie Hervieux, Sigmar Polke, Michal Salsman, Andy Warhol), in a four dimensional  space-time. So first of all it is of the body as understood by phenomenology that we think,[vi] the body that anchors and guarantees the unity of a perceiving, conscious subject, one that remembers and acts, within the horizon of the world. This is, indeed, a body that seems perfectly well suited to the apprehension of the art of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s,[vii] art that calls for a co-presence of the work and the artist, or of the work and the spectator, a co-presence that is in fact necessary and foregrounded as such, because it is only in this confrontation that something happens–quite close to theater in this regard, which thus often becomes a required reference.[viii] By borrowing from language and from perception the nouns that distinguish bodies, the verbs that distinguish actions, and the adjectives that distinguish qualities, it is thus possible to name and to designate the different elements that constitute each one of these artistic situations, to describe an approach to and an experience of these works, and finally to attempt to define what it is that is forged between a “subject” and an “object” given that both of these things only come into being at the same instant as does the connection between them.

But it is here that the difficulties begin, because the notion of presence, and therefore also the notion of co-presence, is in the end insufficient when it comes to accounting for the nature of the connection created by and the perception called for by these works. This is to a great extent because the idea of a body does not allow one to designate these works in the field of perception without the idea of the image immediately becoming mixed up with it, taking everything over, becoming the arbitrator of the existence and of the validity or invalidity of the perception. And in fact it is the case that on the one hand, many of these works, in the way they manifest themselves, elude the opposition between bodies and images. Robert Morris’s mirrored cubes, rather than being volumes in space, involve the multiplication of images from the surrounding space in real time. Daniel Buren’s striped canvases, which are “paintings” or else wallpaper, which is to say background images, nonetheless disrupt the configuration of landscapes and of architecture, and they do it so well that the very idea of a body used in defining works becomes problematic. On the other hand, in many of these works, the co-presence of bodies (work-artist or work-spectator) in no way guarantees that any kind of perception will occur. If someone does not enter into the beams of light emitted by Giovanni Anselmo’s projectors, thereby themselves becoming the screen, nothing appears in the light that nonetheless contains and transmits the form of the words. When Robert Smithson sets up mirrors in a snowy field, they are only visible because they capture and reflect the sunlight onto the snow in front of them, heating it and causing it to melt more quickly. It is this diversion of luminous intensity and of heat that attests to their presence. The mirrors are thus seen as radiant images, and moreover it is for this reason that they even succeed in changing the matter of their surrounding environment.  Without the light of day, and more importantly without the sun’s rays, these bodies remain inert and without effect. In an entirely different way, Nathalie Hervieux finds herself physically present in front of her camera’s lens, but in vain. The rhythm and speed of her movements prevent her body from inscribing itself on the negative; she dissolves into something transparent to the light; she is there, but without any effect on the visibility of the world, revealing to what extent her body is an image whose persistence is not simply given, an image that could evaporate into the impalpable flux of light, which is also that which contains it.

Through these examples, sketched hastily and schematically, it comes to seem that the bodies of these works manifest themselves in the form of images, and that it is as images that they exist and act–or don’t act–in the world. As for the bodies of the subjects (the artist or the spectator), they only exist in their capacity to place themselves correctly in the light, following certain parameters of speed and time, in order to perceive images or be perceived as images–the image once again providing in its appearance the form and the validity of any act of perception.

I am not attempting here to evaluate and measure the degree of reality of these bodies and these images. I am simply noting that phenomenological co-presence[ix] in no way guarantees that any kind of perception at all will happen and develop naturally. Contemporary forms of technology (video, digital) that enable a permanent and global circulation of millions of signs and images teach us on a daily basis that perception also takes place in places where bodies themselves are not present, in a co-present of emission and reception which is not a co-presence. Moreover, in many of the works taken up here, the distinction, and even the very opposition–one so salient throughout all our classical forms of thought, our art, and our religious imaginary–between bodies and images falls apart. The nature of the perception and the reality of the world, but also and consequently a reflection on ethics (cf. G. Anselmo, G. Richter, M. Salsmann, A. Warhol) all find themselves unsettled.  Bergson insists on the fact that bodies are inevitably perceived as images by consciousness, but he affirms above all that nothing, no mental operation, could manage to explain how bodies are perceived as images if they weren’t already images themselves, specific luminous configurations in motion. It thus seems necessary to substitute for that co-presence in space a co-present in time, that of a luminous flux forever filled with images and an obstacle, say a perceiving consciousness or, more concretely, a “black screen” that intercepts that luminous flux and reveals certain aspects of it in the form of a singular image that depends on parameters of speed, length of exposure, intensity of radiance, exactly in the manner of a photograph.[x] Bergson specifies that that which is not perceived exists in the motion of the light, but that in the absence of resistance or a slowing down or a stopping, it exists only in the state of a “translucent” image, an image that has not yet been “revealed.” This way of thinking has in a certain way been technologically realized and verified in the digital image. Whether such an image be, in effect, configured into a drawing on the screen, or a composition in color, or a photograph, and so on, or whether it simply be white, black, or grey in the manner of a blank, empty sheet of paper, the digital image is always a full image, the amount of data has the same weight, under the condition, of course, that electrical energy is flowing in the network and that the screen is “on.” The digital image has a material density analogous to that Bergson describes in relation to light. The figure that appears does not rise up whole within an empty space, but is rather arrested, diverted, subtracted, or extracted from a luminous energy that is itself whole and that already contains the figure. “The identity of the image and movement stems from the identity of matter and light,” writes Deleuze, commenting on Bergson.[xi] For me this is certainly not a postulate that was in place prior to the studies presented here, but is rather a concluding statement arrived at through the experience of these works (cf. N. Hervieux, R. Smithson), even if I often found it useful to cruise along on phenomenological pathways. “Say that my body is matter or say that it is an image, the word is not important,” Bergson noted. The works to which I wish to pay homage here, honoring thereby my “affective debt” to them, have allowed me to live through an experience of this astonishing sensory opening, one that redeploys thought about the world in a new way. This foreword is thus more a kind of open conclusion that attempts to define the limits of the anthology, at the same time as it indicates to what an extent the revisiting that these works require should take us beyond those limits.

(Paris, March 1998)

[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1969), 104.

[ii] Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, translated by Georgia Albert (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

[iii] The opening and the closing of the text about Arte Povera–what is at stake when Pierrette Bloch’s entire body is absorbed in a miniature act that could be related to the physical fabrication of an impossible form of writing, the manner in which the assassination attempt on Andy Warhol participates in his body of work–such passages, for example, would never have seen the light of day without a narrative vision of the works or of the artists at work. Let me add as regards the end of the text of Warhol, that on one occasion it was shamelessly taken up by a journalist on TF1 as if it were their own (what more could one expect?), that on another occasion it was almost reused by another art critic, who needed to have it explained what it means to cite a text that has already been published, and that Jean Baudrillard, with all his university training, knowing perfectly well the rules regarding borrowing and citing, did something similar. He deemed it reasonable–after having published a text alongside one of mine in a special issue of a review that was devoted to Warhol (see Artstudio, no. 8, Spring 1988)–to present as his own a few years later, in a book called Le Crime parfait [The Perfect Crime] (Galilée: Paris, 1995), p. 115, the same excerpt, slightly rewritten. One could of course call this a cynical instance of Warhol’s practice of recycling in a way that garners surplus value for one’s own name. But what makes sense for Warhol becomes simply a practice of pillaging when done by Baudrillard, who is not an artist, as we all know.

[iv] Exodus 4:10-4:16.

[v] The rayograph would in some sense be closer to Veronica’s Veil, since it is a tactile imprint that creates an optical image.

[vi] Many of the American artists involved in Minimal Art, along with many theoreticians of art of the same generation frequently cite Merleau-Ponty directly. Phenomenology of Perception, translated in 1961, becomes a key reference for them.

[vii] It is precisely the idea of the body that is required to come to grips with American art from Jackson Pollock to Richard Serra, by way of Body Art… But it is just as pertinent for approaching European art (for example Kinetic Art, the Nouveau réalistes, from Yves Klein to Tinguely, in situ [site-specific] practices, and so on).

[viii] Robert Morris’s work with the Living Theatre is exemplary in this regard. The same thing was true for music as well. In a long polemical text directed against Tony Smith and Minimal Art, Michael Fried constructed his argument around this drifting of artists towards theatre: “For example, a failure to register the enormous difference in quality between, say, the music of Carter and that of Cage or between the paintings of Louis and those of Rauschenberg means that the real distinctions–between music and theatre in the first instance and between painting and theatre in the second–are displaced by the illusion that the barriers between the arts are in the process of crumbling…” (“Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, June 1967).

[ix] What I mean by this phenomenological co-presence is an encounter, at the minimum a dual one, between the body of an “object” and that of a conscious “subject,” an encounter in which it is always presupposed that if the one and the other verify their own existence at the moment of the connection between them, the simple confrontation of the bodies themselves, thanks to their a priori integrity, necessarily guarantees the establishment of a perceptual connection.

[x] “But is it not obvious that the photograph, if photograph there be, is already taken, already developed in the very heart of things and at all the points of space? No metaphysics, no physics even, can escape this conclusion. [ . . . ] Only if when we consider any other given place in the universe we can regard the action of all matter as passing through it without resistance and without loss, and the photograph of the whole as translucent: here there is wanting behind the plate the black screen on which the image could be shown. Our ‘zones of indetermination’ play in some sort the part of the screen. They add nothing to what is there; they effect merely this: that the real action passes through, the virtual action remains.” Henri Bergon, Matter and Memory, translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1912 ), 31-32.

[xi] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1 : The Movement-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 60.


Luc Lang

Luc Lang is the prize-winning author of, among others: Voyage sur la ligne d’horizon, La Fin des paysages, and Mille six cents ventres (published in English as Strange Ways). In addition to fiction he writes essays on visual art and has contributed to a number of exhibition catalogs. Lang has also published the startling autobiographical work 11 septembre mon amour, in which he ties the tragic fates of Native Americans to the victims of 9/11, and reflects on how a collective psyche deals with past and present horror. His short story collection, Cruel 13, on the brutality of the contemporary world in all its facets, will be published in English by The University of Nebraska Press in 2014. Lang writes widely on contemporary art and on the art of the novel and teaches aesthetics at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts de Paris et Cergy.

Michael Lucey

Michael Lucey is the Bernie H. Williams Professor of Comparative Literature and French at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of numerous books and articles on French literature, including Never Say I: Sexuality and the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust (Duke University Press, 2006). He is also the translator of Didier Eribon's Insult and the Making of the Gay Self (Duke University Press, 2004) and Returning to Reims (forthcoming from Semiotext(e) in 2013).

Les Invisibles. Copyright (c) Editions du Regard, 2002. English translation copyright (c) Michael Lucey, 2012.